The Hounds of Hell

“A hound, it was, an enormous coal-black hound, but not a hound as mortal eyes have ever seen. Fire burst from its open mouth, its eyes glowed with a smouldering glare, its muzzle and hackles and dewlap were outlined in flickering flame.”

So Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has Dr. Watson describes The Hound of the Baskervilles in that famous story of the same name. A counterfeit hound of hell in this story, but heir to a long and noble tradition. Perhaps the oldest of its ancestors is Cerberus of Greek legend. In Theogony, Hesiod describes him as a 50-headed creature guarding the passage to Hades, preventing the living from entering and the dead from leaving. We remember Cerberus best as three-headed, as Hercules saw him when he carried him away as one of his labors. Only Orpheus, with the charming power of his beautiful music, ever got past Cerberus.

Dogs are the traditional companions of the Gods of the Dead. As late as the fifth century CE, puppy sacrifices accompanied the burial of infants and children in the Roman Empire. Dogs were sacrificed to and associated with many death Goddesses of the Mediterranean, including Hecate, who reanimated the dead and escorted the souls of those who died before their time. In an ancient invocation to Her, the baying of hounds is music to Her.

In the tales from the Mabinogian, Arawn, a king of the land of the dead, has a pack of hunting hounds, pure white with reds ears. The Cwn Annwn (pronounced “koon anoon”), Hounds of Hell, appear again and again in Gaelic legends and are always a sign that death is near or, worst yet in some cases, that one is nearing the land of the dead. These hounds have different names in different parts of England, Yeth or Heath hounds, Wish Hounds (from “wisht” or eerie) and others. Their master also may be called by many names: Herne, Gwyn ap Nudd, Dewer, even Arthur, but always He is the Lord of the Wild Hunt, and Lord of the Dead.

The sound of the Wild Hunt has been heard throughout the forests of the British Isles for centuries. Even in this century the nighttime baying of the hounds and the pounding of the hooves of ghostly horses have been described in the New Forest. Once it was an omen of death, or some great event, often a disaster. Those who saw the wild hunt were said to have less than a year to live. But many were those who claimed to have heard as it passed by their homes on the edge of the wood. Those who dared to follow were said to be lured to nasty ends, the edge of a cliff too dark to see in the night, a cave that was in reality the doorway to the land of the dead that closed behind, or some other much-to-be-avoided fate. Yet in legends and tales there were those who were able to return from the land of the dead, especially at the two times when the veil between the worlds was thin—May Day and Hallows.

On the next stormy night, when the wild wind blows and bangs at your door, when windows rattle and trees groan, listen for the sounds of the wild hunt, of the howling of the Hounds of Hell. With luck, they’ll pass you by.

Image: Cerberus. iStock.

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